First things first. The opening of this album is simply incredible, and unbelievably engaging. I have never been so immediately entranced by an album’s opening number. Over some appropriate ambient and atmospheric music and noise, a quote from one of the two bards this album is dedicated to is beautifully read, describing the wartime experience of C.S. Lewis. The quote ends with a sentence containing the words “this is war”, which are repeated by many different voices before the song kicks in with full effect. Instrumentally, it is suitably menacing, though over the top a lighter motif plays. A staccato drumbeat plays out like bullets, and the trenches go quiet. Distorted vocals sound strangely beautiful before the music comes back in with a stately and decidedly melancholy military march, underscored by the sounds of war. Honestly, I couldn’t be more in love with this song, and then the vocals are finally sung at about the sixth minute and the mood is broken for me. Or, at least, it was the first couple of times I listened to this album.
Now, I realise I’m going to receive some grief for this. While a new band in a way, this is apparently more a renaming for an established act who have taken on the name The Bardic Depths for an absolutely wonderful concept album concerning the friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but I had no familiarity with the artists concerned, and the vocals therefore came to me as a bit of a shock. There’s actually nothing wrong with them at all. In fact, I really like them. But they don’t at all, for me, fit the music. Dave Bandana has a voice that reminds me of the Johns that might be giants. Now I love TMBG, but obviously, with that similarity playing in my head (and I realise that others may not hear this at all – we do, after all, all hear differently), I find it hard to equate the seriousness of the instrumentation and lyrics with a vocal style I associate with frivolity (admittedly very clever and enjoyable frivolity, but frivolity nevertheless).
It’s taken many listens to get over this. I can enjoy music in spite of a vocalist I don’t like (e.g. I like Yes, but not Jon Anderson’s voice, and I like Smashing Pumpkins, but not Billy Corgan’s voice), but this isn’t quite the same. As, in this case, I like the music and the voice, but I struggled to manage them together. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be alone in this, so I’m going to try and avoid commenting any further on the vocals. I have no problem with them at all now, but I wanted to address this, on the odd chance that someone listens to this album and is initially put off by the vocals. Don’t be! This album is awesome! So, that out of the way…
I absolutely love The Trenches. It’s a perfect introduction to the album. As far as I’m aware, Lewis and Tolkien never came across each other in the war, but that’s one of the things I particularly like about the way the story of their friendship is played out over this album. The album begins before they meet, and ends by reviewing their legacies, once their friendship has dissipated. The following song, Biting Coals, therefore is where we first meet both our protagonists, again with an incredibly evocative instrumental introduction. Honestly, musically this album is simply amazing. I think it would have made an amazing instrumental album, or even an album similar to Nordic Giants’ Amplify Human Vibration, where spoken word is used to incredible effect.
The Kolbitars were an informal group founded by Tolkien, dedicated to reading Icelandic and Norse sagas (thus named because coal biters sit so close to the fire they virtually bite the coals). This should explain the spoken word samples you hear within Biting Coals. Lewis joined the Kolbitars, and from this group the society of Inklings as the members began trying their hand at forging their own myths. It was Lewis now, rather than Tolkien, who led the group, as the members read aloud to each other, in weekly instalments, lines from their epic works in progress. The Inklings were bards – storytellers, and entertainers – but mainly for themselves. As such, Biting Coals has a quite introspective vibe. And speaking of vibes, I absolutely adore the marimba on this track. (I like the vibraphone, but I love the marimba.) Again, the sung vocals don’t come in until about halfway through the track, but as they are low-key (almost Floydian), they have never bothered me as much on this track as the preceding one.
Depths of Time is reminiscent of the opening track, and perhaps refers to how their shared experiences deepened their friendship over time. Neither Tolkien nor Lewis wrote a war memoir in the traditional sense, but the fictional worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia reveal much about their experiences and thoughts on the theology of war. Lewis’s and Tolkien’s mythologies do more than reflect the realities of war. Their characters teach readers how to respond to great conflict. Whether hobbits in Middle Earth or the Pevensie’s children in Narnia, it’s often the weak or powerless who, in the end, humble and defeat the mighty. The music of this track is suitably humble, until at just shy of five minutes it becomes upbeat, and some nifty sax accompanies Bandana’s vocals. Lewis and Tolkien both expressed a dissatisfaction with literature, and Tolkien’s letters recount that Lewis said to him that “If they won’t write the kinds of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.” And so they wrote. And they fought. Tolkien and Lewis didn’t see eye to eye on matters of literary taste. But they fought as friends. They had a rivalry, but at this stage, it was a friendly rivalry, and each found the others arguments constructive and instructive. Hence, despite lyrics describing fighting, the music of Depths of Time remains upbeat and happy. But, this is a song of three thirds, and so the music for the final four minutes or so is more sedate. Given the theme of time, I like to assume this might represent the differing writing paces of Lewis and Tolkien. While Tolkien wrestled over The Lord of the Rings for almost two decades, Lewis composed the entire seven-part Narnia series of novels in less than one.
Depths of Imagination, to me, seems to recall the Christian aspect of Lewis and Tolkien’S friendship. It may come as a surprise for many, who know of Lewis via the obviously Christian tales from Narnia, that he was an avowed atheist before meeting Tolkien. Indeed, Lewis credits Tolkien for showing him the light. Lewis believed, erroneously as many still do, that all myths are lies. Tolkien argued that myths need not be lies and that while the story of Christ may be a myth, just like the Scandinavian myths they had loved and had celebrated as Kolbitars, there was one crucial difference: The Christian myth was true. Now, as an atheist myself, I don’t buy that. But almost all of the products from the depths of the imaginations of our two bards (their ‘Bardic Depths’) come from this one basic premise. I will admit that like much of the works of Lewis and Tolkien (which I do enjoy), this song drags a little. It is easily my least favourite track, but it is thankfully short.
Depths of Soul, which follows, is far more satisfying (and I do often skip straight from Depths of Time to Depths of Soul). I’m afraid I’ve never been one for paying much attention to lyrics, and there are usually only odd lines that stand out to me. So it is entirely possible (probable, even) that some of my interpretations of the songs from this album are wrong. But for me, Depths of Soul represents where it all starts to go wrong for the friendship. Despite having convinced Lewis to give up his atheism, Tolkien was somewhat dismayed to find Lewis choose to join the Anglican church (Tolkien was Catholic). The lyrics are clearly based upon the writings of the bible, as I can recognise bible quotes among them, so I don’t think I can be too far wrong in my impressions.
And so we reach The End. The end of the friendship, and eventually the end of the lives of the two bards, who were never reconciled. The music is suitably melancholic. Tolkien had helped Lewis see the light and join him as a Christian, but Lewis’ fame and celebrity, which arrived soon after, while Tolkien still struggled on with his novel, was at odds with Tolkien’s quiet and devout ways. As their friendship waned, the two saw less and less of each other – and less still after Lewis married a divorcee. The friendship faded away, and was never rekindled. This song has that same feeling of finality, and could easily have been the final song of the album. It definitely has the feel of a closing number.
But, just as we began the album before the friendship of Lewis and Tolkien, we end it afterwards, with their Legacies. This final song explores why their friendship left a legacy that neither Lewis nor Tolkien could have possibly created on their own, despite all their differences, and despite their friendship not lasting the distance. It brings together all the moods and sounds (including the marimba) into a triumphant and rousing epic closing number. Lewis and Tolkien are gone, but their mythologies live on, and if you are Christian then that mythology lives on, too.
This is one of the greatest concept albums I have ever heard. But even if the narrative wasn’t so clear and easy to follow, it would still be great. Bookended by probably the two best tracks (my two favourites, anyway), it is almost impossible not to be carried away with the expressiveness of the music. You owe it to yourself to give this a listen.
01. The Trenches (8:35)
02. Biting Coals (7:50)
03. Depths of Time (12:35)
04. Depths of Imagination (5:01)
05. Depths of Soul (6:40)
06. The End (7:37)
07. Legacies (9:28)
Total Time – 57:46
Dave Bandana – Vocals, Keyboards, Guitar, Bass, Percussion, Flute, Harmonica
Brad Birzer – Spoken Word
Robin Armstrong – Guitar, Keyboards, Samples, Drum Programming, Backing Vocals, Whistling
Glen Codere – Backing Vocals
Gareth Cole – Guitar
Tim Gehrt – Drums
Peter Jones – Saxophone, Vocals, Spoken Word
Paolo Limoli – Keyboards
Kevin McCormick – Guitar
Lilly Miller – Spoken Word
Mike Warren – Cello
John William Francis – Marimba
Record Label: Gravity Dream
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 20th March 2020
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